Time for our regular roundup of quick-fire reviews and impressions of everything under the spotlight at Retro Arcadia this week, old and new and a bit of both…

First this year we had books, then last week it was magazines, and now we begin even further off-piste with a board game! Proper nerd-stuff too because I’ve been playing Arkham Horror: The Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games! It’s a cooperative card game based on the H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, although it also plays great solo, which means you don’t have to mix with any real nerds to enjoy it, just like I didn’t! I actually got it for Christmas 2021 but honestly was a bit intimidated by its complexity, so over this Christmas I worked it all out and had a bit of a trial run, then I watched a couple of tutorial videos, and now I’ve done the first campaign scenario for realsies. And it was a blast! You investigate, you fight, you move, you learn skills and gain assets, you encounter and you strategise to progress the cosmic horror and your slide into inevitable madness. You’re soon in a decent flow too, not checking the quick-start guide or extensive rule set every ten seconds anymore, and the story unfolds to an ingenious conclusion (and tough decision) in about an hour (which is about how long it also takes to set up then put away), and then carries over to the other included, connected scenarios. It’s all of a decent quality, although I’d like some more practical storage in the box for the two hundred cards and dozens of tokens. That aside, I’m not really into this stuff, but I like what’s here a lot so just wanted to share the love!

Speaking of sharing love, what a joyful experience A Short Hike was this week, and shoutout to the recent Cane and Rinse podcast on it for finally getting me to play it properly, although it’s possibly still Patreon-only as I write, so either sign-up or just check out many years’ worth of other weekly deep-dives until it drops for everyone else! Anyway, this must rank close to Street Fighter II as the game I own the most in different places but have never played before, and as I’m sure is true in both cases, what a fool I’ve been! In case you don’t know, it’s a carefree indie exploration game from 2019 about getting your bird thing that can’t just fly there to the top of a mountain, and has been given away pretty much everywhere since, so check your library! It’s all about the journey though, as you walk, glide, climb and swim around the island at you own pace with all sorts of side activities and things to find if you feel like it. And you will! The uncluttered pixel-art and gorgeous soundtrack create a world you’ll struggle to leave even after you find your way to the top – it’s all so peaceful and easy-going! It is a short hike too, and I completed enough of everything I wanted to in a couple of hours. Can’t recommend this one enough now I’ve finally given it a chance!

And that left plenty of my gaming time this week for The Pawn on Commodore Amiga, which I first mentioned here last week, when it also turns out I’d way over-estimated the progress I’d made up to where I was then! No complaints there though. I’ve no idea how long it actually took me to get to the end, but it was all I wanted to do most evenings! Maybe ten hours but maybe more. Anyway, just to recap, it’s a graphical text adventure from Rainbird Software in 1986, when it wasn’t only lauded for its jaw-dropping visuals, but also for its groundbreaking vocabulary and parser system, which were seen as setting the standard for what was left of the genre that followed. Speaking of which, the puzzles did get a bit too Monkey Island at times, and I had a few late-game issues with text instructions (for example when it stopped understanding “close door” in a lift and wanted me to “slide” it instead) but overall it was impressive, and the atmosphere never let up. Interestingly, that was entirely down to the writing too, rather than those visuals that I remember blowing me away in Computer & Video Games magazine a very long time ago, although it was still a real thrill to see some of those iconic sights for myself after all these years! I’ll leave The Pawn there because I liked it so much I’ve decided there’ll also be a full deep-dive into it here, so lookout for that in a few weeks!

Something else I mentioned here last week was playing a load of Rygar on the Atari Lynx. I did find my way back to the marvellous arcade version and the very unique (not to mention cruel) NES interpretation too, and those in turn led me to something I’d totally forgotten even existed, and that’s Rygar: The Legendary Adventure from 2002 on PlayStation 2! It’s based on the old arcade game but obviously it’s all 3D now, and we did like a bit of destructible environment back then too! It seems to be based on both Greek and Roman mythology (as well as architecture), with you hacking and slashing your way to bringing down a load of Titans, the ne’er do well pre-Olympian gods who have a beef with your Mediterranean island of Argus. It’s sort of God of War but three years before that arrived, and while it can be a little cumbersome and repetitive, it can also be good-looking (especially some lovely lighting effects), great-sounding and pretty epic in scale. It’s not going to be anyone’s favourite game ever anytime soon, and I doubt I’ll still be there thirteen or so hours in to see the end again, but I’ve definitely had a lot of fun going back again!

I have finally seen the end of Sonic Advance 3 though! This originally arrived on the Game Boy Advance in 2004, and I’ve enjoyed it way more than I did its immediate predecessor recently! Gone are the cheap late-game deaths due to poor direction, and instead this is bringing a pretty unobtrusive team-up mechanic with your choice of one the usual cast of Sonic characters you’ll increasingly unlock along the way, each of which can add something of their own to your repertoire, like Tails chucking you high into the air. The rest is the very best of 2D Sonic, albeit not quite the relentless thrill ride of the first GBA game in this series, with each of the seven stages split into three acts and a boss arena located around a local hub area that I didn’t really care for exploring to find the way in to each. Once you’re there though, it’s as fast and polished as you could ask of a Sonic game, and it looks and sounds as good as we’ve come to expect of these GBA games. Very big, well designed levels, some really creative bosses (considering how many had gone before them by now), some very cool 3D effects, and the running on water bits are such a rush when they happen! That’s now seven 2D Sonics down in my current journey of discovery, and while I have still got a more thorough game of my favourite so far, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, on the go on my Mega Drive Mini, I think it’s time for some more Game Gear fun next with Sonic Chaos.

Time for a quick musical interlude with Magician Lord, a side-scrolling fantasy action platformer from SNK in 1990 for the Neo Geo arcade and home systems. And I even made a video for you to enjoy it right here! I’d never heard of this one before I saw a screenshot on someone’s Twitter feed the other day and thought it looked colourful and interesting, which is probably more than you can say for the generic magician try to stop some god of destruction being revived storyline! That’s fine when a game sounds like this though – I was immediately blown away by the in-game background music, which has that Thunder Blade IV kind of energetic cosmic rock vibe about it! The gameplay is fine – think a slightly tepid Ghouls ‘n Ghosts that’s also big on difficulty and some unforgiving checkpoints when you’re just starting out. Quite hard to put down once you do start though, and I’m really glad I found this one!

Omega Race on the Commodore VIC-20 from 1982, based on Midway’s arcade game from a year earlier (their only foray into vector graphics), is surely one of the system’s great conversions. One of its best games full-stop too! It’s a spin of Asteroids, with your ship controlling pretty much the same with rotational direction, thrust and fire guiding it around the galactic score box in the middle and rubber band screen edges, shooting enemy ships, drones and mines. Clear the screen and you go to the next wave, which is bigger and more aggressive. It sits at the coveted number sixty-nine spot in my big list of all-time favourite games, and number three in my top ten single-screen shooters (behind VIC-20 Jet-Pac and Atari 2600 Seaquest). Came on a cartridge too, so no loading time! Which was lucky because I played it to death at the time, to the point I used to make up my own game rules to make it more challenging, like setting your ship in motion in a random direction then not thrusting anymore, just rotate and shoot. No need for such shenanigans playing it for the first time in years again this week, but I reckon I racked up some pretty respectable scores in the end. Simple, brilliantly implemented (vector-free) on the VIC-20 and a true classic!

I did play a bit of Thunder Blade, Batsugun and (the now-dragging) Cyberpunk 2077 this week too, but I think we’ll finish up with the original arcade version of Afterburner. This will always be a showstopper to me, but as much as I’ve played it since 1987, I’ve never been any good – stage three if I’m lucky, and I really think it is down to luck if I get that far! Its fast-paced 3D shoot ‘em up action is Top Gun in all but name, but it’s all so frantic and not massively elegant to control that I find myself wrenching the stick around willy-nilly in the face of a screen full of missiles, finger stuck on machine gun with the odd press of the other button for heat-seekers when I hear the lock-on signal, and just seeing if I can make it unscathed to the next wave! Sometimes it works too, but regardless, it’s always felt great doing it, and that refuel plane will always be a sight for sore eyes, as is the rest of the glorious, multicoloured aerial chaos!

And there we’ll leave it for this time. In case you missed it last Wednesday, be sure to check out my look at The Munsters on Atari ST, as well as the old TV show and the surprisingly great new Rob Zombie movie that also released in the UK for the first time last week. What a coincidence! And next Wednesday, it’s the turn of one of my all-time NES favourites (as well as the best version of Joust ever) as we rediscover Balloon Fight, so I’ll see you then!